by Shaina Aber
(Quito, Ecuador) November 8, 2010 – We have spent the last two days in Quito, meeting with refugees, NGOs, Ecuadorian government ministries and the U.S. Embassy. Ecuador has the largest population of recognized refugees in all of Latin America, totaling 55,000 recognized refugees in all – 98% of whom are of Colombian origin. As many as 200,000 more refugees have yet to be registered, and the Ecuadorian government, despite valiant efforts to address a backlog of asylum applicants in the last year, is struggling to address the claims of about 20,000 refugee applications.
The vast majority of Colombian refugees in Ecuador live in urban areas, dispersed throughout cities; this makes it difficult to identify, serve and assist them. While the central government in Ecuador has put forth vigorous policies aimed at identifying and registering Colombian refugees, Ecuador lacks the resources to implement similar efforts to ensure integration and security for these same refugees. One recurring theme our group noted was that Ecuador feels very alone and abandoned in the effort to assist the Colombian refugee population, especially as funding for refugee assistance efforts has rapidly declined on the part of donor states and U.S. resettlement numbers for vulnerable refugees has significantly dropped over the last six years. At the same time border violence has increased and Colombian armed groups have penetrated deep into Ecuadorian territory, trafficking in drugs, arms and persons, and seeking to target some of the refugees who escaped their clutches in Colombia.
While Ecuador has by far the most advanced asylum system in Latin America and a progressive new constitution that should afford Colombian refugees many of the rights enjoyed by Ecuadorian nationals, all is not well for many of the Colombian refugees who have crossed into Ecuador. Refugees report a rising tide of xenophobia, stigmatization and discrimination in Ecuador, which presents significant challenges for the ability to integrate into Ecuadorian society. A refugee couple I interviewed yesterday, with a colleague from U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, applied for refugee status nearly a year ago and still has not received a response from the Ecuadorian government. They have been given no work authorization while their cases are pending and have therefore been forced to work in the informal sector where they have been preyed upon by several unscrupulous employers. Finding housing also presented problems, several times they were turned away by landlords who said they did not wish to rent to Colombians. The couple was displaced multiple times in Colombia by two different armed groups and struggle to deal with significant psychological trauma as a result of these attacks, even as they live in legal limbo in Ecuador.
Unfortunately receiving refugee status does not appear to significantly change the circumstances of many of the refugees in Quito. The Ecuadorian Human Rights Ombudsman has expressed concerns over the fact that employers, banks, and other institutions in Ecuador do not understand, or apparently refuse to recognize the refugee card as a valid document to which rights attach.
The situation of Afro-Colombians and Colombian single-women-headed households is particularly grim in Quito where stereotypes abound concerning these two groups. All Afro-Colombians we interviewed reported the near impossibility of finding jobs in Quito. Afro-Colombian men reported that they are targeted, harassed and at times arbitrarily arrested and detained by Ecuadorian police even after they have received refugee recognition. Recent raids and detention of Colombian refugees and Cuban refugees and migrants in Quito has raised concerns among the NGO community and on the part of the Human Rights Ombudsman. Colombian women are popularly perceived as loose women or prostitutes, and report a disproportionate incidence of sexual harassment, exploitation, and rape. Colombian women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based-violence and have fallen victim to trafficking rings and survival sex as well, a fact noted by UNHCR, NGOs and by the the Vice-Minister of Human Rights and the Human Rights Ombudsman.
Media outlets are complicit in the stigmatization of Colombian refugees, constantly highlighting cases of Colombian criminal activity and decrying the Ecuadorian government's efforts to recognize Colombian refugees as a threat to the security of Ecuador, even though recent statistics indicate that the incidence of criminal activity among the Colombian population is no way disproportionate to their population. One disturbing example of media malfeasance that occurred earlier this year: a large group of Colombian refugees was arrested by the police and accused of criminal activity. The media outlets broadcasted the faces of the accused, along with their refugee identity cards. Colombia media outlets picked up on the story and in turn broadcasted the faces and refugee cards of these refugees. Two days later the refugees were released and all of the charges were dropped, but their security had been irrevocably compromised by the actions of the news outlets as their former persecutors now have definitive proof of their whereabouts.
All of this should not detract from the fact that the Ecuadorian government has taken unprecedented steps over the last two years to live up to its obligations under the refugee convention, especially significant in the face of popular resentment and backlash. These efforts have been undertaken with the assistance and support of creative and energetic UNHCR office in Ecuador that has significantly expanded its outreach to Colombian refugees over the last several years, despite budgetary challenges.
My hope is that donor states, such as the U.S. and Canada will come to realize that the situation here is at a tipping-point and that attention to the situation, assistance and burden-sharing initiatives on the part donor states will mean the difference between further progress for Colombian refugees' rights in Ecuador and the rolling-back of policies and practices that ensure safety for the Colombian refugee population.
Our group is now headed for two points on the border with Colombia: Lago Agrio and San Lorenzo. Read Part Two here.
Shaina Aber is Associate Advocacy Director for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and is on a fact-finding visit to Panama and Ecuador with a delegation of Refugee Council USA members and a representative from the Canadian Council for Refugees.